virtual light

lance olsen
© 1994 p
ostmodern culture 4.2



Until now, and for no particular reason, Postmodern Culture hasn't reviewed a novel. And it seems appropriate that the first novel to be reviewed in these electronic pages should be one by none other than the godfather of cyberpunk, William Gibson. A cultural impulse birthed in the mid-eighties, and disowned as a concerted movement by its creators fewer than four years later, cyberpunk is still very much a cultural phenomenon--as a quick skim through the hallucinatory and info-dense pages of the Berkeley-based magazine Mondo 2000, or its how-to book, A User's Guide to the New Edge (1992), will tell you. The very name cyberpunk fuses and confuses the techno-sphere of cybernetics, cybernauts, and, most of all, computer hacking, with the countercultural socio-sphere of punk, the embodiment of anarchic violence, fringe mentality, and a sincere (even naive) attempt to return to the raw roots of rock n'roll. Cyberpunk was, and is, in some very spooky and some very exhilarating ways, a whole heck of a lot more than merely a short-lived trend, some simulacrous eighties echo of Poundian Imagism or Boccionian Futurism.

For a whole bunch of people it's a way of life--a phenomenon that far exceeds the discourse of its shrill self-proclaimed mouthpiece, Bruce Sterling (whose cyberpunk manifesto appeared in his 1986 cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades), as well as that of Marc Laidlaw, Pat Cadigan, John Shirley, K. W. Jeter, Lewis Shiner, and the other writers originally associated with the term.

Just modem into a couple of underground bulletin boards around the country--The Temple of the Screaming Electron (510-935-5845) with Jeff Hunter's BBS Review, a comprehensive listing of international fringe BBS's; or maybe Private Idaho (208-338-9227) with its deep-seated information-wants-to-be-free message; or perhaps Burn This Flag (408-363-9766) with its cybersex scenarios involving, I kid you not, everything from nose fetishes to water sports--and you will find a lot of people who want, like Andy Warhol, to be a machine. The plethora of electronic subcultures, each with its own codes, languages, and styles, can make you feel old at twenty-five, already past the point of ever being able to keep up with it all.

Little cults embrace Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, with its speedy surreal images, thickly textured information, and techno-sleaze ambiance. Sonic Youth dedicates a song called "The Sprawl" to Gibson on the 1988 album, Daydream Nation. Kathy Acker openly pla(y)giarizes whole parts of her 1988 novel, Empire of the Senseless, from Gibson's 1984 Neuromancer. A cover story in Time (February 8, 1993, there goes the neighborhood) focusing on the cyberpunk moment is laid out like a series of pages from, what else, Mondo 2000. Billy Idol's really bad 1993 album Cyberpunk comes replete with its video about the LA riots, "Shock to the System," featuring a Terminator-esque Idol transmogrifying into a cyborg with a TV camera protruding from his eye-socket. Scott Bukatman's fascinating Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, out just months ago from prestigious Duke University Press, nips hot at the heels of the excellent 1991 Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, edited by Larry McCaffery and containing pieces by everyone from J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs to Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida.

Idol's, Bukatman's, and McCaffery's projects of course also suggest that appropriation and commodification--academic and otherwise--have set in. So what else is new? But in many ways, William Gibson continues to stand at the center of this cultural firestorm as the guy whose seminal Matrix Trilogy—composed of Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1990), and foreshadowed by some of the stories collected in Burning Chrome (1986)—explored, among other things, computer-generated reality, information as the new power base, and a grungy near-future universe that looked way too much like our own present one for comfort. In these works Gibson did nothing less than help shape the way a large part of the population perceives the world. We now unselfconsciously use the words and concepts he gave us (cyberspace, jacking in, computer cowboys) almost as though they'd had no flesh-and-blood origin.


Gibson, meanwhile, has been forging ahead. His last work, Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (1992), was a $2000 sweet autobiographical prose poem on a disk created in collaboration with the abstract expressionist painter Dennis Ashbaugh, which was designed to self-destruct after a single reading. Virtual Light (1993) is more conventionally packaged. Nevertheless, it bears Gibson's unmistakable signature.

Much conventional science fiction is set in the distant future, peopled with aliens, and enacted on a galactic and heroic scale. Gibson's SF, on the other hand, extrapolates an all-too-real near-future world set increasingly close to ours (Virtual Light takes place in 2005, more than fifty years before the events in his first three novels), peopled with those at the margins of society, and enacted on a (usually) global and (always) antiheroic scale. "It's kind of a tragic artifact of science fiction that some people are naive enough to think that science fiction writers are predicting the future," Gibson recently told the San Francisco Bay Guardian (18 August, 1993). Fredric Jameson put it more academically when he pointed out in his interview for Andrew Ross's collection Universal Abandon? that SF achieves "a distinctive historical consciousness by way of the future rather than the past" and thus becomes "conscious of our present as the past of some unexpected future, rather than as the future of a heroic national past." The plain point: SF isn't about the future; it's about the present. In SF, tomorrow is a metaphor for today.

In Virtual Light the future-present has lost the mystical aspects of cyberspace which dominated Gibson's earlier trilogy. In its place appears a universe almost completely rooted in the meat world. The effect doesn't challenge our imagination so much as our sense of political realities, particularly West Coast political realities. Set in a dingy California divided into two states, NoCal and SoCal, Gibson's novel explores a narrative space in which the manufacture of cigarettes has been declared illegal throughout the US, and the Surgeon General is trying to outlaw convertibles because their use contributes to the high incidence of skin-cancer. An African-American woman is president, there's massive inflation, and a privatized law- enforcement company cruises LA in tanks designed by Ralph Lauren. Countries like Canada and Brazil have exploded into nation-states, and TV is everywhere, even at the center of a Christian fundamentalist sect whose followers believe that a piece of God resides in every old movie.

It's a radically dystopian vision—or at least it might seem that way to you if, as Gibson underscores in that Guardian interview, "you are a very comfortable middle-class citizen." Otherwise, it goes without saying, things actually look pretty good in his world. After all, "there's stuff happening to people, lots of people, right now, all over the planet, that's incredibly worse and so much more depressing than anything I've ever written about." At least through one optic, then, Virtual Light, a book of profound contradictions if ever there was one, can be read as an optimistic novel. Two key metaphors reinforce this. First is a San Francisco bike-messenger service, one of whose employees, Chevette Washington, steals a pair of virtual light glasses (which produce images in the brain by stimulating your optic nerves without employing photons) from a gross guy at a party on a pissed-off whim. Second is the Oakland Bay Bridge, abandoned by the city after a megalithic earthquake, slowly taken over by the homeless, and currently the topic of research by a young Japanese scholar named Yamasaki, who's attempting to use the bridge to understand American culture.

Through the course of the novel, the bikes and the bridge become important pomo icons. Gibson's use of the former nods in a gesture of appreciation and appropriation toward the major means of transportation in his friend Lewis Shiner's excellent 1991 novel, Slam, about the anarchistic world of skateboarding, underground economies, and computer networks. The bikes, like Shiner's skateboards, are emblematic of environmentally conscious no-fuel freedom, intense energy, exhilarating speed, and sexy fashion. They are the embodiment of the techno-hip, an attitude to which almost all the amoral characters in Gibson's text subscribe. Skirting society's periphery, they are out for themselves in a posthuman cosmos that has moved beyond a sense of compassion—or even hope. What counts to these people is the next hit of money or designer drugs, or the next ingot of information.

The patchwork dwellings on the brilliantly described broken bridge, from bars to tattoo parlors, sushi shops to rag-tag shelters, inhabited by those living on the edges of our culture, indicate something a little different. They "had occurred piecemeal, to no set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic. At night, illuminated by Christmas bulbs, by recycled neon, by torchlight, [the bridge] possessed a queer medieval energy." Or, elsewhere: the dwellings "had just grown, it looked like, one thing patched into the next, until the whole span was wrapped in this formless mass of stuff, and no two pieces of it matched. There was a different material anywhere you looked, almost none of it being used for what it had originally been used for."

The streets find uses for things, Gibson's narrator notes in Neuromancer, and the result in Virtual Light is an urban crazy-quilt, an emblem of contemporary America. The bridge is also an icon appropriate to the particular novelistic practice of Virtual Light. As in Count Zero, the novel's chapters are mostly no more than five or ten pages long and, also like those in Count Zero, they form a structure of intersecting plots that moves inexorably toward a jazzy unifying climax. Both bridge and text, then, are examples of Termite Art, a term Gibson lifted from a 1962 essay ("White Elephant Art and Termite Art" in Negative Space) by the iconoclastic film critic Manny Farber. If White Elephant Art embraces the idea of a "well-regulated area, both logical and magical," as in the films of François Truffaut, Farber argues, then Termite Art embraces freedom and multiplicity, as in the films of Laurel and Hardy, going "always forward eating [its] own boundaries, and, likely as not, leav[ing] nothing in [its] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." Rubin, the artist-protagonist of Gibson's 1986 short story "The Wintermarket," describes himself as a gomi no sensei, Japanese for a "master of junk." The same is true of Gibson himself. A literary bricoleur, more techno-hickster than techno-hipster (not even on e-mail, he's the first to admit just how little he really knows about the computers and other glitzy gadgets that surface in his texts), he shops for his ideas among the aisles of the late-twentieth-century cultural hypermart.

Maybe the most surprising result of his latest shopping spree is the often matte-black humor that continually emerges. It's the antithesis of the bleak flat tone of the books that comprise the Matrix Trilogy. If Neuromancer has all the comic hoopla of the dark prophet himself administering late rites to late capitalist culture, then Virtual Light, virtually light, frequently evinces the bright cartoonish mischief of Pynchon. Characters sport handles like Lucius Warbaby. A surveillance and command satellite is fondly nicknamed the Death Star by those it watches over. A wind-surfing boutique is called, dead-pan, Just Blow Me. There's a pscyho-killer with the Last Supper tattooed on his chest, a guy who believes TV is the "Lord's preferred means of communicating, the screen itself a kind of perpetually burning bush," and a woman who's in San Francisco to get her husband's cryogenically frozen brain removed from a tank with a whole bunch of others so it doesn't have to feel so crowded in the afterlife, such as it is. The complex and deeply spiritual exploration of cyberspace that pervaded the Matrix Trilogy here gives way to very funny, if perhaps too easy, parody.


The presence of such parody flags the essential narrative problem Gibson, now forty-five and a pomo icon himself, has had to wrestle with since the publication of Neuromancer almost a decade ago. Is it possible to keep the news new, the action vigorous and mind-bogglingly hot without skidding off the novel novelistic road into the ditch of self-replication, the slough of self-parody? In part the answer is surely yes, and the way Gibson goes about it is by dosing his text with a powerful hit of comic vision that seems to take nothing (including itself) very seriously. The fresh infusion of humor into his writing takes down the seriousness of his own textuality and grim futurist ideas before someone else has a chance to, destabilizes them in a flourish typical of Termite Art.

But in part the answer is also no. Mona Lisa Overdrive, Gibson's last solo effort, is set in the Hollywoodish world of Sense/Net. It focuses on the manipulation of young stars by various financial concerns and is shot through with the theme of commercial sellout. Clearly when writing it Gibson was simultaneously beguiled by the glamour and goods associated with that dimension, and bent on satirizing its commodifying impulse. The consequence was a Janus-text that looks to accessibility and tameness on the one hand (its conclusion involves an idyllic after-death marriage of its protagonists in a kind of futuristic restaging of Wuthering Heights), and toward disruptive innovation on the other (the scene can be read as a sharp self-reflexive parody of traditional happy endings). It was a move that prompted Paul Kincaid, in his review of the novel for TLS (12 August 1988), to glance back nostalgically to Neuromancer and observe that "Gibson wrote one book of stunning originality which caught the mood of the time so successfully that he has been condemned to repeat it. By this third volume he is showing clear and dramatic improvement as a writer, but is doing nothing fresh with his talent."

Something along the same lines could be argued with respect to Virtual Light. For all its flash and burn, there's nothing particularly trailblazing about it. Chevette Washington, the bike-messenger who stole the VL glasses (which provide only a pale simulacra of the cyberspace we find in the trilogy) from a guy who turns out to be a gopher for, what else, a major corporation with some fairly depressing plans for San Francisco's skyline, as in rebuilding it from the ground up, thereby, in a tactic that's the antithesis of what the bridge suggests, dispossessing the already dispossessed. Throw in one Berry Rydell, a good-cop-gone-(accidentally)-bad, attach him to Chevette, and you have a variation of the Molly-Case team from Neuromancer, the Angie-Turner one from Count Zero, and the Angie-Bobby one from Mona Lisa Overdrive. They are all edge-dwellers of one kind or another, all caught in the complex workings of megacorporations uninterested in the human or humane, and all situated in a hard-boiled slightly stereotypical naturalist narrative universe, a universe at least as indebted to Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep as to Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange—despite its being stacked with really rad techno-weapons, grubby urban landscapes, delightfully grotesque characters, and ultra-hip fashion statements. The break-in plot of Neuromancer devolves into a backwards break-in, or familiar heist plot. The scope shrinks from global to local. The computer shrinks from gateway to surreality into subversive instrument. And the structure tightens (many reviewers, you can bet, will tell you it "matures"), becoming more conventional and more predictable. The happy ending provides a literal deus ex machina to tidy up the loose narrative threads.

And yet things aren't as easy as that, either. After all, most people don't read Gibson for plot. Most read him for those great gadgets (nanotech birth-control devices, fetal tissue injections that build muscle and make workouts obsolete), which shock you into reconceptualizing your present and reevaluating your future; for those hip fashion statements (Chevette's bike is a piece of assemblage art), which, like MTV logos, are just pure plain guilty pleasure to view; and for his holographically detailed sentences, frequently more poetry than prose, with more information packed into each one of them than into whole chapters by less energetic writers: "The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic," Virtual Light launches. "He watches a gunship traverse the city's middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod. Hours earlier, missiles have fallen in a northern suburb: seventy-three dead, the kill as yet unclaimed." No one does action like Gibson. The pace of his sentences, his sheer speed of inventiveness, are astonishing. And finally, of course, we read Gibson for his engaged imagination, his breadth and intensity of vision, his ability to shift us onto and across a terrain of crucial cultural issues that most other contemporary fiction (and even some cyberpunk fiction) just doesn't care about, let alone explore. Gibson's vision takes in everything from the anarchist hacker underground networks to the rise of religious fundamentalism, from cryogenics to surveillance satellites, from genetic engineering to nanotechnology, from multinational control of information to techno-angst, from the Japanization of Western culture to the decentralization of governments around the world. This is what keeps us coming back to Gibson's books, and this is why he remains one of the most significant and influential writers on the fin-de-millennium scene.